Julius Randle and RJ Barrett took their turns at the dais for postgame interviews Wednesday after the Knicks saw the familiar pattern occur again — another big lead squandered, another loss added to the pile and a growing cry outside of their locker room to face the reality of their situation.
But while the fan base may want to see coach Tom Thibodeau hand the minutes to the rookies and little-used players on the roster for the final 20 games, Randle and Barrett echoed the words of their coach — they want to play every game to win.
"Why wouldn’t we?" Randle said after the Knicks' 123-108 loss in Philadelphia, their sixth straight and 16th in the last 19 games. "When we have an opportunity to compete for something, do it, regardless of whatever situation we’re in right now. If you have a chance to compete for something, you keep competing. Even if you’re not, you keep competing. At least me personally, it’s who I am."
"I think we go in trying to win every night," Barrett said. "The way we’ve been playing, we come out strong. We’re playing well. We’re playing against top teams and we’re giving them a run for their money. And then, we’re going in with the right mentality to win every night."
The reality of all that competing: The Knicks (25-37) are five games out of the final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference.
While playing to win certainly is understandable and laudable, any notion that they are in play for the postseason could be spoiled shortly. The Philadelphia loss came at the start of a difficult seven-game road trip that continues Friday against the Suns and then has the Knicks playing the Clippers, Kings, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Nets.
In a season that has gone wrong in so many ways, the best sign for Thibodeau might be that the two biggest stars on the roster mouth the same points he does, standing firmly in line with him, and that even if they haven’t been able to win, they have not quit on him.
"You’ve got to be mentally tough," Thibodeau said. "There’s different things that happen in this league. You see it all the time. You don’t know what changes it. It could change the next day. It could be a play, could be a situation, that turns it. And that’s what you have to believe in. If we put the work in and do the right things, the results will work out for us. That’s where I want our focus to be."
While tanking in the league rarely involves a less-than-best effort, it does come in the form of just who a team puts out on the floor. The Knicks shut down Kemba Walker for the season, a decision that was mutually agreed upon. Derrick Rose underwent a second surgical procedure on his ankle and the Knicks will have to judge whether it makes sense to add any more miles to a player who already has put plenty of wear and tear on his body.
Rookie Quentin Grimes had become a key rotation piece before suffering a knee injury last week and rookie Jericho Sims now is the first center off the bench. Miles McBride has been the only rookie to not move into a larger role. That could happen soon, too.
"I like this," Thibodeau said of the demanding schedule. "It tells us exactly where we are, it tells us what we have to work on . . . Look, we’re on the road, we’re shorthanded, we got people out, so we have to play hard as heck. We can’t take any possessions off to give ourselves a chance to win. The margin of error is very small. But that’s OK. That’s the challenge of the league. Come out every day, put everything you have into it, get better. That’s what we have to do."